The Synthesizer and the Church Musician

by John Seboldt

for Feb. 1995 "Pipenotes"

(newsletter of the Twin City Chapter, American Guild of Organists)

What can a synth do for a church musician?

What would you do with a keyboard that can emulate natural instruments, make various combinations or transformations of natural sounds, or wander far afield into unique electronic timbres?

On what other keyboard instrument can you hear the sound change -- subtly or radically -- as you press a key harder and harder? Yes, the "velocity sensitive" keyboard can be set up not only to make a sound "louder", but also to brighten a sound, raise its pitch slightly, or even change it to an entirely different color.

What would you do with the capacity to swell the volume of a held note, or add vibrato, or bend its pitch a half step, by pushing the key harder at the bottom of its travel? Yes, "aftertouch" or "pressure" sensitivity makes this possible.

How might the ability to divide a keyboard into two or more zones, each with a different sound, help you?

Would the capacity to create an entire multi-instrument texture on one instrument be helpful to you? A "sequencer" built into a synthesizer (or running on an external computer) can make the instrument work like a player piano that plays many sounds at once.

Advanced electronic synthesizers (as opposed to inexpensive department-store electronic keyboards) are highly expressive musical instruments that take time to master. Organists, because they have spent so much time manipulating a complicated instrument, have an advantage in learning the ins and outs of synthesis, if they are willing to explore a bit and use the all-important listening ear and musical imagination.

The Synthesizer and the Pipe Organ

Do you want to enrich your organ sound pallette? If so, look for sounds that complement and contrast with the organ. There is no reason that the right kind of synthesized sound, properly amplified, cannot help lead a congregation well, especially if combined with some equally "right" organ sounds. Despite any aesthetic reservations some may have about "imitation", we cannot afford to overlook good imitative sounds -- they are easy for listeners to relate to.

Other categories of sound:

Is there something that has the capacity to sound like a large reed stop? Use this when you need something like a "tuba" or "chamade" reed.

Look for easy transposition into different octaves -- even the 32-foot pitch range.

The ability to easily "split" the keyboard into two or more different sound zones is also extremely useful. An accompaniment can play in the lower keyboard zone, and a solo in the upper zone -- both transposed into any appropriate octave.

Use the synth to enrich your organ literature or hymn playing. The ubiquitous "string ensemble" is really a marvelous asset. A wind instrument sound that has controllable vibrato and dynamics can be a good step beyond the organ's swell box and tremulant.

How do you physically place the synthesizer? You can start with it on a stand to one side for simple melody additions. For more advanced use, place the synthesizer keyboard above your organ manuals, at an appropriate angle. You may have to prop up the back with some hymnals, or explore other ways to move the instrument within relatively easy reach. Your scores may have to be on a music stand off to the side, or on some kind of custom-crafted stand above the synth. Use your imagination.

Do you need a direct MIDI connection to your existing organ console? (MIDI is an acronym for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface", a standard by which electronic musical instruments communicate with each other.) It is certainly easier to play from nicely-spaced organ manuals and pedals, with the MIDI "stops" right there among your other registers. Various options are available, some fitted to existing equipment, some integrated with completely new relay and control wiring for the entire organ. This is definitely something to consider if you are contemplating new relays or other significant rebuilding or renovation.

However, a major shortcoming is that most MIDI equipment for pipe organs is not velocity or aftertouch sensitive. This is fine as far as it goes, but you lose the all-important expressive capability that often compensates for any "artificial" quality in the synthesized sound. For this performer, the physical convolutions necessary to play a fully-capable synthesizer keyboard with the organ are well worth a few trips to the chiropractor!

The Synthesizer and "Contemporary" Church Music

Do you have a need to provide appropriate instrumental color for various flavors of "contemporary" church music? Or do you want to lead a standard hymn in a different style? The above categories of sound, and the keyboard zoning capacity, will serve equally well. Richness, quality and responsiveness are necessary here as well, because now the synth complements and enriches the basic piano accompaniment, and some sustaining/leading qualities of the organ may be emulated with the synthesizer.

Just to clarify what I mean by "contemporary" music, I'm thinking of many styles of music that depend on a piano part, with possible fleshing out by a guitar, bass, or wind instruments. The days of ten guitars strumming away are definitely fading.

If you have a pianist that does a good job with a written keyboard part, with an appropriate "split" you as the "synthesist" can add a "bass" part from the lower half of your keyboard, and "something else" in the upper. Do the people need more "melody" lead than the piano part provides? Play the melody in octaves (plus some additional harmony) on strings, or be bold with a rich brassy sound. Or does a rich plucked harp add more? Would some kind of sustaining "pad" sound enrich the texture? The ear, tempered with an "organist's judgement" about what will help lead a congregation, is your guide. Some items may benefit from a "sequenced" percussion part. However, you are then a "slave" to the tempo and pulse that it sets. Only certain kinds of pieces will work this way, usually slower, more relaxed tempos, or faster items that have enough time built-in for the singers to breathe.

Unique colors and effects

Many questions of taste and appropriateness come into play here. How do elements of liturgy and "theatre" interact? When do effects and colors become self-serving, manipulative, or merely entertaining?

But anyone who experiments with dramatic proclamations of Scripture, or who has listened to the more evocative/meditative side of in the "New Age" style, will certainly be moved to think and experiment. When listening to sounds titled "Cosmos", "Platinum," "Angelbreath," or "Heavensgate," what liturgical or Scriptural images come to mind? Maybe Pentecost, or the story of creation. Might not "Timewarp" or "Transporter" speak to you of the evil against which we struggle? Judge your congregation carefully, and take your inspiration from the worship you serve, and your experiments have a good chance of being well-received.

Selecting adequate instruments

Most music stores that sell advanced synthesizers cater to the popular music market. This may make it difficult to communicate your needs.

Just play and listen. Try to listen "behind" or "beyond" the mass-market sounds that are initially loaded in. Are the sounds you hear of a quality, richness, and expressiveness that you can relate to, even if some things are a little wild? Is there some really beautiful element in that multi-layered sound that you want to pull out and emphasize? With time, you will be able to: keep at it!

Do some of the basic "imitative" timbres "feel" right at the keyboard? Do they respond to the velocity and aftertouch capacity of the keyboard? If not, can you load in a sound library that is better?

How does the instrument organize sounds for selection? Is there some kind of "preset" or "combi" mode akin to your organ's pistons? How easy is it to set up keyboard splits and transpositions? Can you easily turn off the artificial reverberation that often sounds unnatural with other instruments? Most new instruments provide "aftertouch", though not every sound may be set up to use it (this can be changed). Some even provide "polyphonic" or "key" aftertouch, where an individual key can be pressed harder at the bottom for expressive purposes without affecting other held notes.

Most new instruments are "multi-timbral" -- capable of playing more than one sound at once. They may generate up to 16 sounds at once if driven by the sequencer.

How easy is the "sequencer" function to use? Most operate like a tape recorder, with several "tracks" that you can "record" one at a time while listening to the others. The tempo is pre-set, and you hear a "click track" to keep the pulse while recording.

Above all, is there extensive and easy-to-use capability for modifying the sounds and the sound's response to the keyboard? This is the key to making the instruments do our musical bidding. Remember, the factory sounds may only give us hints of the instrument's capacity. It's up to the user -- or any help the user may call upon -- to finish the job. It may take a long time -- but what other instrument can be "voiced" in such detail right from the front panel?

The best new instruments cost about $2500. These are worthy investments if you want to grow into the best, detailed sound programming. Other instruments in the $1200 price class may provide good sounds with some loss of flexibility. Good used equipment may be adequate, but get some help shopping -- things change so fast in this field.

Making the sounds heard

These instruments are dependent on external amplifying equipment. Anything that creates sounds that range in richness from a large gong to a string orchestra needs equipment of fidelity approaching a fine home sound system -- only bigger, louder, and more durable!

In less demanding situations, or away from your home base, musical instrument amplifiers that combine in one cabinet an amplifier and one or more speakers for bass, midrange, and/or treble, will do an acceptable entry-level job. They are durable, and usually immune to damage from the various loud, obscene noises that occur occasionally when hooking up.

For serious use, you need a full, dedicated stereo sound system. All recent synthesizers provide separate left and right channels, giving a much greater breadth of sound. The store that sold you the keyboard may have another department to sell you the audio gear required -- similar to a modest-sized PA system for a popular music group. Individual installations will vary, but to complement the pipe organ, you may need amplifier power of at least 200 watts per channel, enough inputs for your keyboard (at least two, plus room to grow!) and a pair of professional, full-range speaker systems that include at least a 12-inch bass speaker (preferably 15-inch), plus the mid-range and treble speakers, in well-designed cabinets that permit the large bass speaker to reproduce frequencies down to at least 32 Hz (low C on a 16-foot stop) with reasonable power.

Test these systems with the most challenging sounds: full-fisted brass or string chords across the compass of the keyboard, at a volume you are likely to need in your church.

Entry-level "keyboard amplifiers" may be had for $200-$400; you may want to spend $1000 or more (new) for a fully-capable sound system. Used sound equipment is easier to shop for than used synths -- your ears are the judge.


There is no final answer to certain aesthetic questions: the imitation of other instruments, and the use of prepared "sequenced" elements in a worship setting.

My personal feeling is that imitative sounds, or elements of natural instruments, are often a more accessible starting point for the listener and the player. The discipline of making these imitative sounds "musical" provides a standard that any "original" sounds should strive for. Even at their best, they will never truly replace the real thing, in the same way that the organ does not fully replace an orchestra when used in orchestral reductions or transcriptions.

At the same time, we should not stop with imitation, but move into more original sounds. In most cases, for our uses, they will have some kind of relationship to acoustic sounds.

With the capacity to prepare a whole orchestral score and have the synthesizer play it back, we have a bigger question of "canned" versus "real" music. If worship is a PRESENT expression of PRESENT praise, how is a synthesized "sequence" any different from a recorded accompaniment track? The key lies in who created it for what purpose. If it is created for the particular situation, and under the creator's control, I feel a genuine human "presence" at work behind the technology. If, however, one tries to accompany one's "Messiah" excerpts with a synthesized orchestral rendition, this does not feel like a genuine expression of this place at this time. Better a good piano or organ accompaniment.


Any new approach or tool needs a period of struggle for acceptance. It was the same with the organ, which has been the subject of many differeing attitudes, hostile to supportive, over the centuries of its use in the church. The attitude and spirit with which we explore the musical capabilities of electronic sound generation will influence its acceptance as much as will any intrinsic musical merit.

Comments? Compliments? Complements? Contradictions?

John Seboldt, Milwaukee, WI
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